When people attack the Catholic Church and her teaching on morality, they point to laws in past eras that were brutal by our standards. They argue that these past laws show that the teaching that "X is a sin” caused brutal punishments. That presumes law and morality are the same, which is false. Not all sins are against the law, and sometimes law interferes with moral behavior. St. Thomas Aquinas makes this distinction:
Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and suchlike.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, STh., I-II q.96 a.2 resp. trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne,).
In other words, Not every sin was against the law in Christian societies. Morality distinguishes between right and wrong behavior. Morality tells what we must do or must not do regardless of what the law says. If theft is wrong, then we must not steal even if the law allows it. But while morality deals with what we must or must not do, law deals with what penalty we give when people violate morality in such a way that harms human society. Morality does not change over time, but laws can change over time.
Morality does not change from saying “X is good” to “X is wrong.” Theft was wrong a thousand years ago, is wrong today, and will be wrong a thousand years from now. Even so, law from a thousand years ago based on the morality that theft is wrong was different than the law today and the law based on that morality a thousand years from now will be different from the law today. We can and must adjust law when situations merit a gentler response, provided that gentler response is just.
For example, the use of the Death Penalty is not unjust by nature. But when society and technology advances to the point that the criminal can be safely contained without using it, then we can adjust the law so the death penalty is not easily applied. The change of the law does not mean Church teaching on the death penalty is wrong. It means we can adjust the law when the death penalty is not needed to protect the innocent from the criminal.
That’s assuming that the law is based on morality. Sometimes it comes from the vicious customs of a society. For example, slavery, lynching and segregation in the United States, Even though America began as a Christian nation, they adopted vicious customs which had been already condemned by the Church. For example, the Church condemned the reemergence of slavery in 1435—long before the Europeans encountered the New World. Despite this fact, unjust laws continued to treat blacks as property and even some Catholics in the United States owned slaves (just as how some Catholics support abortion today).
Often times, laws stayed in place from before a nation became Christian. Burning at the stake was a pagan Germanic practice. So were trials by ordeal. Catholics did not invent them. Should Christians have changed them? Yes. Do they show that some high ranking Catholics did wrong things? Yes. Do these things show that Catholics were worse than others? They absolutely do not! What they tell us is Christians can be as blind to cultural vices as everyone else.
When it comes to crafting or reforming law, we need to remember three things:
- We must be aware of objective right and wrong.
- We must know which wrongs harm society.
- We must assess the proportionate penalty for doing wrongs that harm society.
The Church does these things. She teaches us what right and wrong are. She warns us of wrongs harming society. She also speaks out against laws that are unjustly harsh or lenient. Unfortunately today, just as in the past, some Catholics have not kept these things in mind and instead passed laws which fail one or more of these criteria. But what people overlook is that the Church also expands our moral knowledge. In applying it to new situations, the Church brings us to deeper understandings we did not have in past centuries.
We cannot create just laws by eliminating our Christian moral roots. We can only create them by being vigilant, studying why things are right or wrong and finding just ways of protecting society from harm.